Shakespeare often gets the credit, but it was the poet William Congreve who wrote that “music has charms to soothe a savage beast.”
Nearly 350 years later, Canadian researchers are finding that music can also help relieve the pain and anxiety felt by children in a hospital emergency room.
In a study published in JAMA Pediatrics, researchers reported that listening to soothing tunes by Enya or upbeat songs like Sunny Days (the theme from Sesame Street) reduced pain and distress for kids being administered an intravenous line.
The music not only helped the children calm down, it helped ease the anxiety of their parents and hospital staff who watched the kids getting hooked up to IV lines.
“We did find a difference in the children’s reported pain – the children in the music group had less pain immediately after the procedure,” says researcher Lisa Hartling, PhD, of the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry.
“The finding is clinically important and it’s a simple intervention that can make a big difference. Playing music for kids during painful medical procedures would be an inexpensive and easy-to-use intervention in clinical settings.”
The study was small, just 42 children between the ages of 3 and 11, but it adds to a growing body of evidence that music therapy helps relieve pain.
Researchers divided the children into two groups. The first group listened to four songs selected by a music therapist, while hospital staff administered the IV. The second group of children listened to no songs during their procedures.
The children were then shown a scale of pained faces, with the lowest showing no pain and the highest a strong grimace. They were asked to pick the face that represented their pain. Researchers also videotaped the children to assess their facial reactions and body movements.
They found that children who listened to the music reported less pain after the procedure.
Interestingly, 76% of the healthcare providers in the music listening group said the IVs were very easy to administer, compared to only 38% of the hospital staff in the non-music group. Parents in the music group were also more likely to be satisfied with the care their children received.
“There is growing scientific evidence showing that the brain responds to music and different types of music in very specific ways,” said Hartling. “So additional research into how and why music may be a better distraction from pain could help advance this field.”
Dozens of previous studies have found similar results. Researchers at the University of Kentucky recently reported that music reduces pain after surgery, while multiple sclerosis patients in Los Angeles say the simple act of beating drums in a “drum circle” helps reduce their pain.
“There is the potential while listening to music and while you’re feeling good to be generating endorphins,” says Jeffrey Gold, PhD, director of the Pediatric Pain Management Clinic at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, adding that endorphins act on the brain the same way opioid painkillers do, providing both an analgesic effect and a feeling of well-being.
But the type and selection of songs is also important, says Gold, because music can trigger a range of images and memories – both good and bad.
“I can listen to rap and hip-hop, and feel angry. I can listen to old rock-and-roll and feel happy, or Billy Joel and feel sad,” he said.
Music therapy is already widely used at Children’s Hospital, where researchers have found that it reduces distress by 20% and pain by about 10%. Therapists and visiting musicians not only use music as entertainment, but as diversions and distractions for stressed patients.
Music is also used to help rehabilitate trauma patients – who are encouraged to play instruments like drums and tambourines to help improve their motor skills.
“Music is a real primitively wired sensation. When you’re using anything that’s audio-driven, that’s a really powerful intervention,” said Gold.